As much as the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins figure to put it together at some point during the 2017-18 season, they just have not been able to do so through 41 games and exactly half of the season. Adjusted for games played the Pens are three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes who currently occupy the last Eastern Conference wild card slot.
If ever there was a four-point game, this is it. The Hurricanes are FINALLY sitting in a playoff spot but likely need to win to maintain that spot. And if the Hurricanes can defeat the Penguins, it will push them down one more notch in terms of standings/point total as they push another game closer to the end of the season. Though winning is most important, handing Pittsburgh a loss would be a bonus victory on Thursday night.
As noted above Penguins enter the game out of a playoff spot and at only 4-6 in their last 10 games. The Hurricanes enter with consecutive losses (one in overtime) but still surging at 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Improved attention to detail managing the puck and defending
I have been harping about a gradual decline in the Hurricanes’ attention to detail in terms of managing the puck and defending in the neutral and defensive zone. Those issues reared their ugly head in a big way in Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. Pittsburgh’s group of high-end forwards are likely to capitalize and probably win a hockey game if the Hurricanes are as generous in terms of gifting away scoring chances again on Thursday night.
2) The goalie position
I fear that I jinxed Tuesday’s game by not including the goalie position in my game preview. Ward was not the primary problem in Tuesday’s loss, but he could have been better in a game that saw him allow five goals on a modest shot total. I strongly expect that Peters will stick with Ward on Thursday, but regardless, getting at least decent goaltending will likely play a role in Thursday’s outcome.
3) A carry over for the forecheck
For my money, the single biggest positive in Tuesday’s game and the most significant reason the Hurricanes claimed a point was the forecheck. The Penguins have injuries and a depleted blue line. I will be watching on Thursday to see if the Hurricanes can find the same intensity level for their forecheck and be rewarded similarly with volume and quality of scoring chances.
4) Aleksi Saarela
With Lucas Wallmark felled by injury in only his second game since being recalled, Ron Francis again made the call to Charlotte and recalled winger Aleksi Saarela. Saarela brings speed, skill and finishing ability and is in the middle of a hot streak right now scoring five goals in his last five games. We will not know at least until the morning skate if Saarela will be in the lineup on Thursday, but if he is, I will be watching his NHL debut closely to assess whether he is ready to make a difference at the NHL level.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Southeast (NOT the usual Fox Sports Carolinas) with John, Tripp and Mike.